When first we behold the big-eyed girl called Ponette, she is dreamily sucking her thumb, which protrudes from a stark plaster cast. The girl has broken her arm in the car crash that will soon take her mother's life. But much more is broken within Ponette, of course. While the well-meaning grownups in her life try to ease the pain--her bewildered father (Xavier Beauvois) with doses of cold reality, her aunt (Claire Nebout) with the story of Christ's resurrection--Ponette, clutching her rag doll Yoyotte, remains inconsolable. Her little cousins (Matiaz Bureau and Delphine Schiltz) further confuse the issue with their own imaginative takes on the hereafter. One even tries to help by play-acting her dead aunt.
For her part, Ponette absorbs assorted elements of what she's heard but stays her own course: She means to rejoin Mom any way she can. Little Victoire is purely convincing, and neither she nor the film leans on schmaltz or sentimentality. Ponette needs some kind of miracle to survive, and one way or another she intends to make one--whether through magic incantations, imagining the castles of heaven, digging in a cemetery or summoning up the power of dreams.
"She's flying with her magic mirror," Ponette says of her mother. Meanwhile, writer/director Doillon holds a magic mirror of his own up to the big issues that sometimes roil around in little heads.
He is not the first French filmmaker to show a deep understanding of children. The legendary Robert Bresson, obsessed with the quest for Christian grace, gave us the unforgettably disturbed fourteen-year-old Mouchette in 1967, while Francois Truffaut plumbed the mysteries of childhood throughout his career. Two examples: The 400 Blows examined child abuse long before most people ever conceived of it; Small Change chronicled the joys, sorrows and adventures of kids in a small French town.
Doillon's method is a little different. Before writing a word of the Ponette script, he sent video crews to interview hundreds of French preschoolers on many topics (including death), looked at the tapes and organized workshops with the most willing talkers. Like his forebear Bresson, he picked his cast from these non-actors. The title part went to Victoire, a three-and-a-half-year-old from Lyon with solemn soulfulness in her face. But all the kids here project an authenticity rarely found in child actors. When a schoolmate tells Ponette: "You killed your mom because you're mean," it's not the imagining of a movie director, it's the reality of the playground.
It's also new evidence that all of us, young and old, will always have trouble making sense of death, coming through grief, grappling with mystery.
Written and directed by Jacques Doillon. With Victoire Thivisol, Xavier Beauvois, Matiaz Bureau and Delphine Schiltz.